Organizing Resistance to Teach for America

By Kerry Kretchmar, Beth Sondel

In July 2013, we were two of the facilitators of the “Organizing Resistance to Teach For America and Its Role in Privatization” people’s assembly at the Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago. Our goals were to learn from those fighting for equity in communities and help connect the myriad resistance efforts to TFA—in communities, among TFA alumni, and on college campuses where TFA participants are recruited. The planning committee included parents, community activists, veteran teachers, and TFA alumni. Together, we learned more about TFA and made some important advances in resistance. We also made some mistakes. Here is our story so far.

Why Organize?

Will we seize the moment? I challenge us to make this our Egypt moment, folks. Our country can’t wait.

-Joel Klein, TFA 20th Anniversary Summit

We watched incredulously. There we were, celebrating TFA’s 20th anniversary in a room with 11,000 other TFA alumni. In addition to Klein (then-chancellor of the New York City schools), speakers at the plenary included Michelle Rhee, Dave Levin, Geoffrey Canada, John Deasy, and other high-profile promoters of market-based reform. The messages from the panelists were consistent and dire: Schools are in crisis; ineffective or lazy teachers and the union that protects them are to blame. The solution lies in the radical transformation of our public school system, which must, they argued, be led and staffed by those in the room. And then it became surreal: Joel Klein compared TFA to the democratic revolution then erupting in Egypt, prompting the crowd to rise to their feet cheering.

We attended the summit as critical alumni and as graduate students researching TFA. Speaker after speaker promoted market-based solutions: charter district reform, deregulation of teacher education, and merit-based pay. And focused on the role of TFA alumni in promoting these efforts. We arrived at the summit with strong reservations and left with the unequivocal understanding that TFA has fully embraced a corporate-sponsored agenda. After we returned from this pep rally for privatization, we began to trace the connections between TFA and corporate reform.

Through our research, we realized that TFA has emerged as a primary supplier of teachers and leaders for the expansion of charters at the school, local, regional, and national level. The organization has done an unparalleled job of recruiting recent college graduates, capitalizing on their passion for ending educational inequity, and training them to believe that market-based policies and pedagogy focused on standardized test scores are in service of social justice.

Some new TFA teachers join in an effort to pad their résumé or get into law school, but many recruits still join because they believe that doing so will help to create a more equitable world. For example, the two of us both joined the organization for idealistic reasons: Kerry in New York City in 2004 and Beth in Baton Rouge in 2002. As college students, we were convinced by TFA recruiters that the organization would train us to be effective teachers in schools and districts that would need our expertise. And not only would they train us, but they’d train us better than a traditional teacher education program would. The organization promised to connect us to others who were passionate, motivated, and capable of improving public education to create a more just and equitable society.

Students United for Public Education
Students United for Public Education
Students United for Public Education

Years later, we each went back to graduate school to try to make sense of our experiences and began to realize the magnitude of the rift between TFA’s justice-based rhetoric and reality. TFA has explicitly shifted its purpose from filling a teacher shortage to replacing experienced and more highly qualified teachers in city after city. The training program focuses recruits on data production and assessment. TFA’s commitment to getting alumni jobs in administration and on school boards (through their Leadership for Educational Equity program) places them at the forefront of a powerful network of interdependent organizations, foundations, and individuals with pivotal roles in the growth of charter school reform. These organizational shifts occurred alongside a significant increase in financial support from venture philanthropists like the Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations.

We were not alone in our concerns. During the course of our research, we met others who had become disenchanted and then increasingly critical of the organization and its ties to the privatization movement. Many alumni had disassociated themselves or become “closeted” about their TFA experiences. Others felt alone, unaware that there were others who questioned the organization’s practices and policies. We began discussing how to make stronger connections among critics of TFA, and how to amplify our voices in the public sphere.

Planning the Assembly

Free Minds, Free People (FMFP), a national conference convened by the Education for Liberation Network, brings together teachers, high school and college students, researchers, parents, and community-based activists to promote education as a tool for liberation. In 2013, the FMFP planning committee introduced people’s assemblies—three-hour sessions focused on organizing collective efforts for education justice, modeled on the U.S. Social Forum’s people’s movement assemblies. We had long wanted to hold some kind of national meeting, but it was the infrastructure and support that FMFP provided that allowed us to bring this idea to fruition. To begin the planning process, Beth reached out to educators she knew who were engaged in resistance to TFA in New Orleans: Hannah Price, Derek Roguski, Rebecca Radding, and Hannah Sadtler. They invited more of their colleagues who were a part of this work: Davina Allen, Stephanie Anders, Ashana Bigard, Ruth Idakula, and Elizabeth Jeffers. It wasn’t just alumni who wanted to stop TFA. As Ashana, a parent, community activist, and educator, said: “We are all victims—the students, the parents, the communities, and the TFA teachers themselves. These reforms steal a piece of our humanity.”

As social justice educators, the two of us like to assume that we are aware of and able to navigate our privilege amid collaborative work. Yet our planning committee soon fell into ingrained power dynamics. As white, university-affiliated researchers, we assumed the role of de facto leaders. In the interest of time and efficiency, we organized meetings on Google Hangout that focused on pragmatics and logistics. When participation waned, we assumed people were busy. In actuality, some members of our committee felt unwelcome, untrusting, or uncertain as to what role they could play in the process. Others simply did not have the technology necessary to access our conversations on a regular basis.

TFA has historically identified individuals from elite colleges as the “best and the brightest” to serve as leaders in communities to which they rarely belong. TFA replaces veteran teachers, often members of the communities they serve, with TFA corps members who frequently have little connection to those communities. And here we were, replicating that approach.

The members of our committee pushed us to understand that real resistance centers the voices of those most deeply and immediately affected by corporate reform: students, their families, community leaders, and the veteran teachers who have been replaced by TFA corps members. To do this, it is important to take the time to discuss, from the start, how to build democratic participation and consensus. It is also important to make sure that technology is ensuring that everyone can participate fully, not becoming a barrier. In our case, we switched to phone conversations and starting each meeting with personal check-ins.

When the eight members of the planning committee finally arrived in Chicago, we had a chance to gather in person for a deeper discussion. We sat in a circle, under a tree in the cool summer afternoon, and shared our reasons for engaging in this movement, our concerns, and our reflections on the process thus far.

“We did an amazing thing,” explained community activist, parent and educator Ruth Idakula. “We talked to each other honestly, sharing our vulnerabilities, shame, and fear. We pushed through the awkwardness and downright nastiness of what the system does to us that causes us to then treat others as lesser than, through either action or expectation. It worked. We were able to pull off an absolutely beautiful thing that has sparked people to move around the country.”

We decided as a collective to reformat our plan for the assembly. That night and the following, we stayed up late and took the time to make sure that everyone had a chance to weigh in. Although the two of us had left for Chicago with a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted the research on TFA, our new plan put stories, human experience, and relationship building in the center of the assembly. As Rebecca Radding, TFA alum and teacher, said: “By the time the morning rolled around, we knew that we would be doing something together that represented the kind of organizing we all wanted to do.”

Dealing with the Press

While we worked to build a collective approach, the press was beating a path to our door. We had no clue how much media attention our anti-TFA assembly would garner in the months and days leading up to FMFP. This attention did us an amazing service by spreading the word about our efforts. People all over the country who were fighting TFA or wanted to be involved began to contact us.

However, the press initially framed the assembly as a “TFA civil war” and focused only on alumni voices. Reporters weren’t interested in the long history of resistance to TFA waged by parents, students, and educators. The way our story amplified the voices of TFA alumni and silenced others caused additional cleavages in our group.

Stephanie, a veteran teacher, came up with a solution: If journalists want to interview a TFA alum, they need to include a parent, veteran, or community activist on the call to capture the diverse participants in this work. We hoped this would make it clear that our resistance is about the consequences of TFA on students and communities.

“When you are looking for answers to problems, you look first at what is within your control,” Stephanie explained. “Although we knew that we couldn’t control what was eventually written by members of the press, we could control what we gave them—being intentional and deliberate in our solidarity as a diverse group.”

TFA has a powerful, well-funded, and highly effective approach to public relations. They project the communities and schools where TFA works from a deficit perspective and portray TFA as “fixing” their problems. Our decision to interact with reporters as teams encouraged the media to highlight the strengths and longstanding resistance of schools and communities.

Our People’s Assembly

Sunday morning, July 14, nearly 100 students, parents, veteran teachers, education scholars, TFA alumni, current TFA corps members, and TFA staff packed into the music room of Chicago’s Uplift Community High School. The FMFP planning committee had set the tone for the day by discussing the importance of developing interpersonal relationships, connecting our efforts, and reclaiming our humanity in the struggle for social justice. Like the other assemblies, our work was strengthened by the pre-assembly trainings from Project South (which has many years of experience organizing people’s movement assemblies).

We wanted to begin with a shared context, so we suggested grounding assumptions about our vision for public education, which we had modified from Project South:

  1. Public education is a public good and a human right.
  2. Public education is essential to democracy.
  3. Schools are community institutions vital to the health of our neighborhoods.
  4. Public education cannot be divorced from larger social and economic inequalities.
  5. Many of us who are current or former TFA corps members originally joined from a commitment to justice and equity.

We emphasized that we were critiquing the organization and its associated reform movement, not TFA recruits or alumni.

Next, the entire assembly brainstormed ways that TFA serves as a barrier to these goals. Our long list included replacing local veteran teachers with TFA corps members who lack adequate training in pedagogy and cultural competence, deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, and providing the labor force for charter school expansion. Then we took a critical look at research on the capacity of TFA teachers to meet students’ academic needs, noting that much of the research that TFA promotes as evidence of their success is not peer-reviewed, has been conducted by think tanks and research groups that have close relationships with TFA, highlights the most successful TFA teachers, and uses students’ standardized test scores as the sole proxy to measure the quality of a teacher. We also noted the burgeoning research on the ties between TFA and corporate reformers: TFA serves as a central node in a network of funders, organizations, and individuals promoting the proliferation of charter schools.

The assembly centered, however, on our stories. Briana O’Neil, a former student from New Orleans, told a silent and emotional room what it felt like to leave New Orleans to avoid Hurricane Katrina, only to return to a school that she did not recognize, full of young, white, new college graduates who did not understand or know how to teach or reach her and her peers. Ashana and Ruth shared their experiences as parents in New Orleans, constantly moving their children from charter school to charter school in an attempt to find high-quality teachers in schools dominated by TFA corps members and alumni. As a veteran teacher, Stephanie talked about the struggles she has faced trying to secure a job in New Orleans, now saturated with charter management companies and administrators who are biased towards TFA teachers. Two TFA alumni shared their stories of how they came to be critical of the organization: Mollie Bruhn watched TFA alumni play key roles in promoting school closures in New York City, and Hannah Sadtler observed TFA’s prominent role in the charterization of New Orleans public schools. Both of them came to understand, as they developed relationships with parents and community members, how these reforms disenfranchised those closest to their students.

Everyone in the room had an opportunity to share personal narratives in small-group story circles. This model—sharing stories to develop relationships and understanding—evolved as a staple for Civil Rights Movement organizing. Members of the planning committee with experience in this approach led us through the process, using the following prompts:

How has TFA impacted you?

Tell a story about something you heard in the presentation that made you feel something/touched your heart in some way.

The story circles generated powerful and emotional experiences for many of us.

Finally, we separated into action groups. Those interested in writing blog posts met in one corner, those interested in conducting academic research in another. Community organizers gathered in the hallway; current TFA teachers and alumni gathered with members of the New Teachers’ Roundtable, a New Orleans organization with workshops to support TFA and other new teachers in developing relationships with community members, critical consciousness, historical understanding, and culturally relevant pedagogy. A group of people working on connecting TFA teachers to their local unions gathered in the back of the room. For the remainder of our time together, these small groups shared, exchanged contact information, and began to develop plans for future actions.

Keeping the Momentum

In the months since, the tone of public discourse about TFA has shifted from blanket bipartisan support to critical concern. We do not know what role the assembly played in the growing resistance to TFA, but it is clear that a larger movement is under way. Journalists, bloggers, community members, TFA alumni, and scholars have publicly critiqued TFA for:

  • Claiming to be an apolitical organization while simultaneously serving as an implementation arm for corporate reform and charter expansion.
  • Undermining traditional schools of education while simultaneously relying on them to help train and support TFA teachers.
  • Deprofessionalizing teaching and working to ensure that students in low-income communities will continue to be in classrooms led by young, inexperienced, loosely trained teachers.
  • Capitalizing on the budget cuts, school closures, and teacher layoffs in Chicago and Philadelphia.
  • Using their political networks to privilege TFA teachers over veteran teachers in hiring processes.
  • Using faulty data to promote their agenda.
  • Failing to effectively prepare their teachers, especially teachers of students with special needs and English language learners.
  • Training their corps members to use a test-centric curriculum and oppressive systems of behavior management.
  • Training their corps members to develop a deficit perspective of their students and the communities in which they work (see “Learn More about TFA”).

Other activists have undertaken more direct forms of resistance. Last year, several TFA alumni began organizing a campaign against the inadequate training of TFA teachers to serve the needs of English language learners in California. As a result, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing voted unanimously that TFA teachers and other interns must receive additional training, support, and supervision to teach ELL students. Throughout the summer, TFA alumni and graduate students at the University of Minnesota tried to thwart a partnership between their department and TFA. Students Resisting Teach For America has started a counter-recruitment campaign. Under pressure from Pittsburgh’s Great Public School Coalition, the school board rejected TFA’s entry into its public schools. Learn with Detroit, a collaboration of former and current TFA corps members with parents, students, teachers, community members, and organizations, is advocating for community-based, holistic, and restorative approaches to educating youth in Detroit. Resistance to TFA coalitions continue to meet in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.

The campaign against TFA is just getting started. We are excited that so many people are contributing and building communities of resistance. The fight against TFA is a critical piece of reclaiming public education and making sure it is focused on social justice and the needs of students, teachers, and communities.  

Beth Sondel and Kerry Kretchmar, both univesity professors, wrote this article in collaboration with the planning committee, a collective group of activists, parents, community leaders, veteran teachers, TFA alumni, and university professors: Davina Allen, Stephanie Anders, Ashana Bigard, Ruth Idakula, Elizabeth Jeffers, Hannah Price, and Hannah Sadtler.